The Auburn men's basketball team is showing little letdown from losing key players from last year's Final Four team, as the Tigers have torched opponents and notched the first 5-0 start to a season for the program since 2004-05.
After edging South Alabama by a point early last week, the Tigers routed CSUN 116-70 before bull-rushing Colgate in the first half on the way to a 91-62 win.
"To be able to finish these first five games in the position that we're in, and to have seen us get better — we have gotten better — is very encouraging," said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl.
It's a testament to Pearl's ability as a developer of players and team chemistry that the Tigers are finding ways to win and thrive, even though the personnel and playmakers have changed a good bit.
J'Von McCormick had the unenviable task of replacing Jared Harper as the starting point guard, and he's shown steady improvement of the Tigers' first five games, averaging nine points, 3.8 rebounds and seven assists a game. His potential to be a solid distributor of the ball emerged even more so over the past two games, where he set a program record with 16 assists against CSUN before adding another eight against Colgate.
"J'Von is the fastest guy out there on the floor," said Pearl. "(Defenders) can't stand in front of him. His passing — eight assists, two turnovers — was really good."
The Tigers' ascendance up to the polls — No. 19 AP, No. 18 Coaches —has been a team effort, with the starters plus McLemore filling into their roles.
Coaches expected senior Samir Doughty to step out of the relative shadows and become the main scoring option at shooting guard and a team leader after the departure of Bryce Brown. He hasn't disappointed, leading the Tigers in scoring with 18.8 points a game, while averaging 6.2 rebounds and shooting better than 44 percent from beyond the arc.
The most pleasant surprise has been the emergence of true freshman Isaac Okoro as dependable starter and often spark-plug of the Tigers' runs. He's played like a third-year veteran through the first five games, averaging 14.2 points and four rebounds while shooting a lights-out 59 percent from the floor. His highlight reel dunks are something to behold, too.
"Isaac just continues to be Isaac," an understated Pearl said after the Tigers' win over Colgate.
Danjel Purifoy has also been a steady presence out on the wing, knocking down nearly 45 percent of his three-point attempts and averaging 11.2 points and 4.2 rebounds.
Center Austin Wiley also seems to be settling into his role; he's relentless on the boards, grabbing nearly eight a game while putting up 8.6 points a game in limited minutes (17.2).
"Austin Wiley was physically more and more dominant," said Pearl. "You could see him getting back into it."
Anfernee McLemore also seems to have found some of the explosiveness that was lacking last season as he continued his journey back from a gruesome leg injury that occurred toward the end of the 2017-18 season. He's averaging two blocks a game to go along with 8.4 points and 4.2 rebounds.
The bench has also started to play a larger role, with Jamal Johnson and Devan Cambridge averaging 6.2 points a game and Allen Flanigan and Tyrell Jones seeing increasing minutes on the court.
"Our bench needs to play better in order for us to continue to grow. We've got to be more physical," said Pearl. "We've got to be more physical, especially with this group next week playing Richmond and Wisconsin and New Mexico."
The Tigers will meet New Mexico in the Legends Classic in Brooklyn,New York on Monday at 8:30 p.m. before playing either Richmond or Wisconsin on Tuesday in either the 4 p.m. or 6:30 p.m. time slots.
Monday's game will be carried on ESPNEWS, with Tuesday's matchup on ESPN2.